— 14mins read
“IT’S just affidavit,” said the young man. “No form of identification is needed, though the person who wants to do the change of name must be present”. This reporter had told him that he needed an affidavit done for a change of name. The young man knows the High Court at Ring Road in Ibadan, Oyo State, like the back of his hand and goes in and out of offices as if he works there.
When asked if a change of name affidavit could be obtained by proxy, he said: “They ask for identification when they suspect the person is not the owner. Little wonder it’s easy to change from ‘Evan’ to ‘Evans’. Just go, swear!” But he swore that things have changed in the ancient city.
“In Ibadan, they insist you must come by yourself because you have to swear,” he begins when asked to do a change of name for a third party, a lady.
“That will be difficult here but I can’t say it can’t be done. I can try pulling it off.
“In Ibadan, you are moved to like three tables and finally to the commissioner for oaths, who often asks questions. There is a focus on the owner being the one who has come to change the name. But in Lagos, it’s a free world. I even send touts to do it for people there. It’s easy in Lagos; too easy!”
‘Lagos for show’
He was right. It is really easy to obtain official documents in Lagos courts; not through the touts that often litter court premises, but from judiciary workers.
A couple of days before meeting the young man in Ibadan, this reporter had obtained different sworn affidavits for a change of name and date of birth at two high courts in Lagos – one in Igbosere and the other in Ikeja – with a lady acting as the intermediary.
As Angela (not real name) got to the main gate of the court at Igbosere, she was approached by two security guards willing to leave their duty posts to take her to where she would do the change of name. She was directed to a woman dressed in a purple ankara, who later took her to another office where a man was seated.
“I want to do a change of name and date of birth for my husband and I,” Angela said. The man looked at her briefly and casually stood up, leading her to where the statement of an oath would be typed.
It was a business centre just outside the court premises. Once the typing was done, the court official took the two documents (with a passport photograph affixed to each) away to the commissioner of oaths to sign.
After seven minutes, he appeared with the legal documents ready though the names and dates of birth used are fictitious. There was no receipt issued to her. At the registry in the high court at Igbosere, it does not cost more than N500 for a change of name and change of date of birth. Since the intermediary did both for both she and the husband, she coughed out N2,000 which might not go into the coffers of the state.
“I can do your change of name and date of birth in your absence – even without your approval,” she chuckled, waving the affidavits.
A few days later, she was at a high court in Ikeja and the outcome of that visit was a sworn affidavit showing a change of name and date of birth similar to that of this reporter’s. She also obtained another sworn affidavit for ‘herself’ changing ‘her’ name and date of birth again.
Disregard for legal procedures
As Nigeria grapple with the lack of a central database of its citizens despite claims that billions of naira have been spent to build such a system, anyone, even foreigners, can change their identity for as little as N500.
The implications of these could be grave for crime control and administration of justice, as criminally minded persons can wantonly change identity or assume another person’s to commit crimes.
Investigations show that several of the processes required to establish one’s identity as a citizen are routinely circumvented by Nigerians, even judicial officers. For example, it was discovered that in the legal procedures to obtain an affidavit, the key to changing one’s name and identity, are hardly followed by government officials as the examples above show.
Article 117(4) of the 2011 Evidence Act provides that “an affidavit when sworn shall be signed by the deponent or if he cannot write or is blind, marked by him personally with his mark, in the presence of the person before whom it is taken.
The procedure is also that “deponents to an affidavit must appear in person before a commissioner for oaths. Articles 108, 115 and 117-119 of the 2011 Evidence Act describe the procedural requirements for obtaining an affidavit provides that deponents are required to state their full name, trade, profession, residence, and nationality.
According to the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the “deponent will approach either a commissioner for oaths at the court and is expected to pay the requisite fee, after which he will be issued a receipt.”
In addition, the identity of the deponent “will be verified,” by checking a “passport or national ID card” with the commissioner saddled with the responsibility of verifying “the facts of the deponent’s statement by asking questions and requesting the deponent to present any evidence, as needed, to ascertain the facts”.
After that, the deponent “will swear to the information and sign the affidavit”, following which the oaths commissioner will “sign and seal the affidavit”.
Most times – some say all the time – law officers circumvent these procedures exposing the nation and innocent citizens to potential and insidious harm.
Checks showed that requirement of the registrar or commissioner for oaths identifying the person who is swearing to the oath by means of national identity card, national driver’s licence, passport, voter card or passport photograph and “that identification of the deponent must be ascertained before the affidavit is commissioned”, is hardly ever followed.
The President of the Civil Rights Realisation and Advancement Network, Olu Omotayo, told this reporter that the standard practice and “the position of the law both under the Oaths Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2004 and the provisions of the Evidence Act is that a deponent to an affidavit must appear in person before the commissioner for oaths, to make an oath”.
“But the reverse is the case now as people in connivance with touts loitering around court premises procure all these affidavits at will and freely,” Omotayo added.
Same rotten system in Ogun
After obtaining the legal documents in Lagos, Angela proceeded to Ogun State where she repeated the same process successfully.
At the high court in Ota, she was able to obtain the sworn affidavit without deposing to it. She told this reporter that in obtaining the documents, she had invented signatures at will. She also did the same change of name at the Customary Court, Grade 1, claiming the deponent is her ‘husband’.
No photograph required for affidavits in Ibadan
The young man in Ibadan doubted the possibility of being able to obtain a sworn affidavit for a change of name by proxy. “In Ibadan, they (the judiciary workers) are effective; no touts. Even court workers avoid you”, he insisted.
Some metres away from the court are some sprawling, bright-coloured large umbrellas sheltering some middle-aged women from the sun. They were busy with their fingers typing away on aged typewriters.
“They type and send you inside the court to swear an oath,” the young man explained. “They won’t dare pass the gate (into the court). I have experienced it more than 10 times. Even the staff of the court will direct you to the registry. You don’t dare do a change of name by proxy in Ibadan High Court at Ring Road.”
He spoke highly of the state’s Chief Judge, whom he said is a no-nonsense judicial official.
“The CJ doesn’t take trash. They account for every kobo. Receipts come from the secretariat. If there’s no receipt, they won’t do it (give you the affidavit).
“I know him as a strict and God-fearing man. Anyway, you pay at a point, collect the receipt and someone else authenticates payment then you are moved to the commissioner for oaths,” he added.
The typists were well-organised and dressed, unlike the touts people often come across on and around the premises of courts in Lagos.
“That’s Lagos for you,” he says as if he could read minds. Continuing in local pidgin English parlance he said: “Na touts dey go do am. While you are queuing to pay they will answer touts (first); they obviously have an arrangement.”
He would soon discover that the change of name racket is everywhere. The intermediary approached one of the typists. “I want to do a change of name,” she simply said.
“The statement has been typed. Where’s your passport photograph, madam?” the typist asked.
“I don’t have,” the intermediary replies matter-of-factly. In less than 60 minutes the freshly stamped and signed sworn affidavit was ready – and without a passport photograph presented.
Seated beside the typist was a man affixing a passport photograph that hardly looked like him to a typed document he was about to present to the commissioner for oaths.
“Do they retain the passport at the court?” someone asked to know.
The intermediary said no. “The court keeps no record. It’s a failed system.”
FCT rolling in same mire
In Abuja, you can do a change of name for someone else without appending any signature on the affidavit.
At the high court of the FCT in Maitama, there is a lady in the process office that people see if they do not want to wait too long.
“I’ve patronised her couple of times recently. You pay her about N2,000 normally rather than the regular N500,” Hajara, the intermediary in Abuja, said.
But when she handed the name to be changed to the lady, the female government official’s forehead formed a crease. Looking at the passport photos, realising it was someone else, the lady said, “You go give me better oh.”
The intermediary asked how much and the lady said N3,000. Hajara paid for the processing fee.
About 45 minutes later, the lady showed Hajara the affidavit but she had a look of worry. One of her superiors had refused to sign the affidavit without the declarant first appending a signature.
“Can I sign it?” Hajara volunteered. The lady defiantly said no.
She said another superior that might sign the document had stepped out to eat. She made repeated calls and asked the intermediary to wait.
Presuming, the intermediary was in a hurry, she asked, “You’re in a hurry?” to which Hajara answered in the affirmative. She was actually the one who seemed more pensive, perhaps anxious that the intermediary might change her mind and ask for her money back and leave if she could not deliver.
About 15 minutes later, she came out again and said she would try getting the strict supervisor to sign the document. She went into the superior’s office but she was unsuccessful.
After another five minutes, an unassuming man dressed casually came by, apparently the “big man”. He pulled out a pen and signed the document.
Like Maitama, like Apo
With N1,000 (though the official fee is N500), Hajara was able to obtain sworn affidavits for the change of name and date of birth at the High Court in Apo. The transaction did not take more than a minute. The intermediary was then directed to the commissioner for oaths’ office.
The commissioner’s countenance changed upon learning that the affidavit was being processed via proxy.
“I won’t sign it!” she said, walking out of her office, but she returned after five minutes looking less angry, and she appended her signature to the document.
Here’s another worry
In the sworn affidavits issued by Nigerian courts, checks revealed that there are no security features of any sort to prevent fraud. One police source stated that it is “almost impossible” to determine the authenticity of such a legal document on the spot.
However, legal experts argue that an affidavit often carries the signature of the deponent and that of the commissioner for oaths. It also carries the seal of the court. Yet, the policeman argued further that the seal does not establish an affidavit’s authenticity as all fake ones also carry the seal and that civil servants working in courts sometimes forge the signatures of the commissioner for oaths.
Court records are also not reliable because the judiciary relies heavily on filing papers which become damaged due to bad weather and time. There is no central database to check against insidious multiple changes of name and date of birth.
This situation, many believe, has made it easy for Nigerian politicians to change their names – to hide a hideous past – and their dates of birth to qualify for a position. Many politicians and employees are said to have ‘official’ age often different from their real age. Even job seekers in Nigeria carry multiple age declaration certificates obtained from courts and use them to apply for a job depending on the age requirement. Sometimes, this fraud is taken to an international level and it all boils down to the country’s judicial system issuing questionable affidavits.
‘Football Age’ a la Sworn Affidavits
In local parlance, there is what is called ‘football age’. In developing countries where scouts usually go looking for young talented players to sign for a European club, the players know that there is a lesser chance of being signed if they are, for example, 23 years old as opposed to 17.
In what appeared like state-sanctioned practice, Nigeria’s national teams have been found wanting in this area.
In 1989, Nigeria’s youth national teams were banned by FIFA for fielding overage players in FIFA-organised youth tournaments. The birth dates of three players at the 1988 Olympics were different from the ones used by those players at previous tournaments. The resulting ban lasted for two years with Nigeria stripped of its right to host the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship.
In 2010, speaking with the BBC World Service, Kojo Williams, a former NFF boss, said: “I don’t see Nigerian football getting out of the quagmire. The problem is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. We use overage players for junior championships. Why not say it? It’s the truth. We always cheat. It’s a fact. When you cheat, you deprive the young stars that are supposed to play in these competitions their rights.”
Last September, it was reported that at least 300 athletes were disqualified by the Ministry of Youth and Sports over age falsification at the National Youth Games (NYG) in Ilorin, Kwara State.
In August 2016, ahead of an African qualifier between Nigeria and the Niger Republic, MRI scan was carried out on the Nigerian contingent with the revelation that 26 members of the Nigerian team were above the age limit and subsequently disqualified from the tournament. This discovery came barely one year after Nigeria had won the Under-17 World Cup.
In all these instances, it appears nobody was prosecuted just as some claimed the frauds are often state-sponsored. It is the opinion of many people that age fraud is prevalent in Nigeria because of the poor compliance with the civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) system in the country. Despite Nigeria being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and prior legislation establishing compulsory birth registration since 1917, many children are still not registered with the authorities at birth.
Yemisi Grace Oyebo, a document management expert, who believes that crime rate, is increasing in the country due to lack of a central database said in an interview: “Our focus should be to have legacies for the coming generations. Other countries have a central database; we don’t have that in Nigeria.
“The national information managers are supposed to have a collection of certain documents. Over there, (developed countries) you can’t forge birth certificate because they have your data – even thumb-prints of the citizens, etc.”
Jiti Ogunye, a legal expert, believes that the establishment of a central database system will checkmate the duplication and replication of identity. “After that central system coupled with a robust data, the institutions that process changes of name and date of birth will have to be linked to that database – to interface with that data such that at every point when a Nigerian shows up to change his identity, it can be quickly checked to see whether it has been done before and whether there are issues regarding that.
“People have been wondering why the Nigerian government could not gather all the data it has in various agencies and put them in one place – a central database system. Like what obtains in developed countries, once you have a social identity number it will be difficult for you to go elsewhere and simply change your identity”.
Expressing his worry regarding the indiscriminate issuance of affidavits by court officers, Omotayo said, “The legal implication of this scenario is that the court officials colluding with the professional ‘charge-bail’ touts loitering around court premises, is that they are perverting the administration of justice. If the law says a deponent to an affidavit should appear before the commissioner for oaths to make such, the law is mandatory and must be complied with.”
He is not alone. Another legal expert, Olufunke Oluwole, explained that countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany will continue to look at personal data of Nigerians with suspicion because of its broken judicial system, among other things.
While she said individuals who change their name or date of birth to circumvent the laws should be brought to book, Oluwole added: “I agree that the ease of the process makes nonsense of the whole affidavit matter. That is why we have issues with embassies and stuff in areas of verification. They know it is very easy for us to get falsified documents”.
A criminologist, Victor Oyebade, suggested that the government should build a secure system, based on findings “deduced from the present situation in our various courts”, calling for a database system that is centralised.
“There should be a centralised database system which would help collate the records of any organisation or agencies responsible for people’s data. This system will have full access to capture people’s data from all data-capturing agencies such as the VIO, FRSC, NIMC, INEC, and all telecommunication service providers, stored in the central data system.
“This system has an interface which allows each agency to upload necessary activities and allows for update and changes made on such delicate documents in order to ensure checks and balance,” said Oyebade.
A couple of years ago, Ben Oghre, a public commentator had warned the Nigerian government about the menace of not having a central database system.
“The most effective way to prevent and investigate crime is using biometrics, currently Nigeria does not have a system for doing this, with almost all committed crimes going unpunished because the wrong people are investigated and detained. In the UK, drivers who get stopped by the police using a handheld device could have their fingerprints checked against a national database at the roadside, under a new plan to help officers check people’s identities and control crimes, Nigeria can adopt this policy.
“The police can check a vehicle’s number plates if they are registered against a person who is on the national database, if the car is subject to an offence, like being uninsured or stolen. If the driver does not convince police he is giving them a correct name, they will fingerprint him and verify his identity on the spot, instead of taking him to the police station,” he had pointed out.
Oghre added: “Biometric technology will speed up the time it takes for police to identify individuals anywhere, enabling them to spend more time on the frontline and reducing any inconvenience for innocent members of the public. Roadblocks and unnecessary mobile police manhandling of innocent citizens must stop if you give them the tools to reduce their inhumane practices.
“The information on the database can be shared with some international organisations to prevent Nigerian criminals abroad from holding public office in the country or committing further crimes on Nigerian soil. It will also help identify fraudsters, drug dealers and child and immigration traffickers who continue to soil the image of Nigeria. It will also help identify those Africans (especially Ghanaians) who brandish Nigerian passports to commit crimes, thereby helping to debase the citizenship of Nigeria while saving their own countries from the same desecration.”
Are there really no records kept?
“How do you expect me to know the number of changes of name that has been done in the country? If you need any such information, you’ll have to go to the National Population Council (NPC). I have gone around asking people which department handles records of change of name. I have spoken with my colleagues in the legal department and they told me that they don’t have such records. I know there should be somewhere where the records are kept. It’s an assignment I will see the end of it. Nigeria is not that bad,” the Director of Press at the Federal Ministry of Justice, Modupe Ogundoro, responded when asked how many changes of name and date of birth were processed in the last five years.
Pleading for more time, Ogundoro added: “There must be a record somewhere. I am not saying we don’t have the records in the ministry and I am not saying that we have. I am working on finding out where, if it exists, the record is. Carry on with your investigations and I will continue to do my research. I don’t want to give any wrong information.”
In March, though the National Population Commission announced that a comprehensive database for births and deaths registration in the country from 2004 to 2019 will be ready by the end of the year, it did not make mention of a database regarding changes of name and date of birth processed by various courts across the country.
The chairman of the commission’s Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, Dr. Tayo Olatunji, said the registrations, which were done in the analogue form, were being scanned and transferred electronically to a database.
Olatunji, a former director general of the NPC, disclosed that registrations for 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 had already been scanned and transferred electronically into the database.
He, however, pointed out that the scanning and transmission of vital statistics outstanding from 2009 to 2013 would commence as soon as money was released by the federal government.
Nigerian government reacts
James Sunday, the spokesman for the National Immigration Service (NIS), does not seem to see anything wrong with the way Nigeria’s judiciary issues sworn affidavits for the change of name and date of birth.
When contacted to comment on the crisis of credibility that acceptance of sworn affidavits originating from Nigerian courts places on NIS’ issuance of passports, Sunday expressed unshakeable faith in the system.
“It is not fair to use the word indiscriminate for a process recognised by a highly discreet and professional service like the NIS, especially as it concerns change of name and other data including date of birth which we do for Nigerians with genuine reasons with verifiable, certified documents from the court as affidavit, police extract and even original documents to substantiate the request by Nigerians. The service carries out due diligence investigation, authentication, and procedures which either qualifies such applicants’ request to either be approved if no reason to disapprove or approved if they meet all the requirements,” he said.
Speaking further, Sunday stated: “The service owes Nigerians the best of service as they don’t have any other country than Nigeria, and entitled as law-abiding citizens to the passport which they are always proud to own. We should encourage them to legally own it and be free to apply for reissue, or whatever service genuinely and following the right process and procedures within the provision of the immigration law. It has never affected our issuance process in any way. Our citizens will not be denied any facility as much as due process is followed.”
This report is funded by the Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).